Program air date: Sunday 15 November at 3pm
Written by the Programming Committee
Christ on the Mount of Olives and Fidelio
Works by Beethoven for forces incorporating voice and orchestra are a small but significant and fascinating part of his oeuvre. The oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, op 85, was his first major choral work and his first important composition with religious subject matter. It deals with the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, aware of the events about to unfold – his betrayal by Judas, his trial and his crucifixion – but uncertain as to his ability to cope with them. Thematically, the work parallels Beethoven’s life at the time of its composition. The oratorio was completed and premiered in 1803, not long after Beethoven wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament, an unsent letter to his siblings informing them of his increasing deafness and thoughts of suicide, but also of his resolve to keep composing.
Beethoven scored the oratorio for soprano, tenor and bass soloists, a four-part chorus and a large orchestra. Jesus is sung by the tenor who, especially in his duet with the coloratura soprano Seraph, highlights his vulnerable human qualities and, for us, is a contrast with Bach’s Passion settings, in which Jesus is voiced by a bass and provides a more narrative than dramatic role.
The operatic overtones – the humanisation and secularisation of Jesus – seem to have given Beethoven some concern. He carried out revisions after the premiere, and again before the work’s eventual publication in 1811. Nevertheless, it was probably good preparation for the composition of Fidelio in coming to terms with both the form and the forces required for an opera. Both works were commissioned by Emanuel Schikaneder for his Theater an der Wien. Schikaneder, who is remembered as the librettist for Mozart’s The magic flute, saw in Beethoven something worth investing in. Financially reckless, he was forced to sell the theatre in 1803 but, due to Imperial privilege, retained his post as artistic director and appointed Beethoven as resident composer.
The opera commission was perhaps Schikaneder’s attempt to revive the composer/librettist relationship he had hoped to have with Mozart before the latter’s untimely death. But while Schikaneder had correctly recognised Beethoven’s genius, he had miscalculated the composer’s operatic skill and interest. Within two months, Beethoven had abandoned Schikaneder’s libretto. With a contractual requirement to write an opera, however, he turned his attention to the story of Leonore.
The opera we now know as Fidelio was not finalised until 1814. In the nine years following the opera’s first performance (20 November 1805), Leonore’s story was condensed and further revised, until both the main work and overture were in a form with which Beethoven was relatively content. After all his struggles, Beethoven would have been glad to see his opera enter the repertory, but he could never have predicted the role it would come to play in the following century.
With its themes of personal sacrifice, hero(ine)ism and eventual triumph, infused with a struggle for liberty and justice, Fidelio spoke to a Germany emerging from the horrors of World War II. As Wilhelm Fürtwangler recognised, Beethoven deserves no accolades as a dramaturgist; however, the power of Fidelio lies not in the theatre, but in the music. “It is Beethoven himself. It is this ‘nostalgia of liberty’ he feels, or better, makes us feel; this is what moves us to tears.”